Australia, news

Mystery Men

Today marks the end of Missing Persons Week in Australia. This is the week when the police pour extra money into campaigns re: finding folk who went walkabout one day and never returned, and there are extra adverts around the place to raise awareness.

Coincidentally, there have recently developments regarding two big mysteries that received a lot of public attention:

Somerton Man

On December 1st 1948, a well-dressed gentleman was found dead on Somerton Beach, in Adelaide, South Australia. Nobody came forth to identify him, and piece of paper with the words ‘Tamam Shud’, which is Persian for “It is over/it is finished”, was found in his pocket.

It transpired that the paper came from a rare edition of a book of poetry, the Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám. Get this – there appeared to be some scribbled code in the book that the page was torn from.

Conspiracy theories went rampant as these all details were appearing at the start of the Cold War, and people believed he was a murdered Russian spy. The gent was buried in a respectable but nameless grave for a while.

He was exhumed again for more forensic investigations.

Apparently as of last week, the case has finally been cracked. Other interesting elements:

• he had legs sculpted like a ballet dancer’s;

• his wife filed for divorce on grounds of desertion (instead of, y’know, actually reporting him missing);

• the lead researcher on this case married a woman who was hypothesised to be Somerton Man’s granddaughter (which he only later ruled out).

• it turned out that Somerton Man had the same occupation as the lead researcher, whose daytime job was electrical engineering.

Read about it here!

So many twists! I remember some years back going to a local Escape Room that was themed with Somerton Man’s case, which was where I first learnt about him. I would not be surprised if they made a movie out of everything that happened.

Image credits: wiki commons and borrowed from the article.

‘The Gentleman’

In July 1994, another also well-dressed gentleman was found – pulled out of the North Sea. He too, had nothing to identify him, and who he was has remained a mystery for 28 years.

The man was wearing had a wool tie, and a diverse range of fancy clothes from all over Europe: British shoes and French pants. His body showed signs of having been physically beaten, and so foul play was suspected.

Image from Murdoch University

For his nice attire, he was dubbed ‘The Gentleman’ – and for a long time, the German police were looking for clues around Europe to identify him.

Researchers from Murdoch University recently conducted isotope analysis of his bones and teeth … and determined that the man had likely been from Australia. This shed a completely new light on the case, which is still to be cracked.

Wiki page

Article on it here.

Reading all these fascinating cases has me wondering what life might for a forensic pathologist, who works out cause of death by looking at soft tissues. This is different to the forensic anthropologist, who does the same but looks at bones. I imagine the former must be a much … oozier … job than the latter.

Had you heard of Somerton Man and The Gentleman? Do the police raise awareness on missing people in your area? What are some interesting historical cases you know of?

Australia, fun stuff

Art Gallery of SA

If you enter the Art Gallery of South Australia, you will find many items, some of which may well have been found by archaeologists, as well as stuff by contemporary artists. I visited last week before the whole hospital/appendix* debacle and will now present some photos.

There are all kinds of fantastic, like this upside down tree…

And a framed image of someone having written pi to one million digits… (I wonder if the figure has been cross checked?)

The photo reel on my phone seems to go in for a while, so here are just a couple of favourites.

Here is a link to the directory of all the art in the galleries if you want to have a look.

A fitting thought:

What’s your favourite kind of art? Do you like art from a particular time period?

*Brief health update after the page break, for the non-squeamish and interested. TLDR; I am home and fine. Thank you for the kind wishes! 🌸

Australia, university

Death of Glenthorne House

One of the research questions at our field school was: Was Glenthorne House lost to accidental fire and / or demolished by the Australian Army?

Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the late 19th Century and was described as “handsome”, “lovely”, and impressive to visitors. It had thirteen rooms, a famous interior woodwork of cedar and inside there was even a grand piano flanked by two staircases. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the Fanciness rating it probably scored at least a hard 8.5.

Glenthorne house, picture from 1919. Courtesy of State Library of South Australia.


It passed through a number of wealthy families, and then in 1913 the Australian Government mandatorily acquired the estate from then-owner Harold Drew, because the army needed to use the land. (Can you imagine? Poor Harold Drew.)

Then the house died a horrible flaming death when it caught fire one morning, and people could not put the fire out.

The army decided to clear it and when it was done, there was nothing left but a crater in the ground

I’ve included here the newspaper article from a paper called The Advertiser (which is still going today, by the way!) that detailed the fiery incident. Date of article: 22nd August 1932.

Crater in the ground, Snipped from our lecture slides. We got to sit in this crater at our field school! Photograph was taken by Brian O’Halloran, 1959. Courtesy of Smith, Walshe and Burns 2018.


Reading through the supplementary material, I learnt that when the Army first took over the land, they wasted no time getting to work, building extra barracks and officers’ quarters on the land. Commanding Officer Captain Normal Campbell and his wife moved into the fancy mansion in 1913, and moved out again in 1925.

There were also notes detailing that soldiers were billeted in Glenthorne house, and some of the young blokes were overjoyed about this because it was probably the 1920s equivalent of being allowed to crash at a Novotel/Hilton. Anyway, a soldier named Albert W. Pedler wrote in his diary that some of the “lucky lads” got to choose their sleeping spots in some of the enormous built-in cedar furniture.

Later, according to Albert Pedler’s diaries, when he went back to Glenthorne to stay, he and his friends were forced to pitch tents on the property because “the lovely house had burnt down.”

Camping! Photo by Lukas on

But get this: his diary was dated 1927, five years before the article I pasted above.

What jumped out to me was this – according to The Advertiser, the house had been condemned for human habitation “some years” leading up to 1932. How did a house shift from a “grand”, “lovely”, “handsome” mansion reserved for an important Captain up until 1925, into a decrepit building unfit for billeting infantrymen in 1927?

image from

Albert Pedler’s diary entry, which seemed to have an anachronistic detail, seems to provides the answer.

It’s also not a stretch of the imagination to suppose that an initial fire would have exposed the famous cedar interior to the elements, facilitating a rapid deterioration of the house leading to 1932, making the interior environment unsafe for human habitation.

Given the Army has forcibly bought the property and tried to get as much use of Glenthorne house as possible even after damage, the fire was unplanned and likely accidental. (Also note that the Advertiser says that people tried to put the fire out with a hose, and had to rescue the furniture). Given how everything turned out, there were likely two fires: one around 1925-1927, and the final one that finished it in 1932.

The timeline I made for the report to illustrate the point.


I found working this out all very exciting and emailed the university course coordinator. He was intrigued by this interpretation, as he hadn’t heard it before. He must have gone digging for more historical sources, because a couple of days later he wrote back. It turns out that one of the principal researchers of Glenthorne House had indeed determined that something fishy had happened to the house (she wrote circa 1924-1927), that stopped people from living in it.

The past researchers only wrote, though, “it was possible that there were two fires”, but I am entirely convinced that there was. I mean, Occam’s Razor is a real tool and philosophy used for problem-solving, after all – “the simplest explanation is the answer.”

So, while I wasn’t the first person ever to notice this bizarre detail and turn of events, it was nice to have a real Archaeologist at university come back and tell me I wasn’t nutty and speculating with wild conspiracy theories. Goodness knows, the world has enough of those.


Out of interest – have you ever witnessed a house burning down? I’ve seen 2 or 3 in my lifetime, as a passer by.

Australia, journal, university

Sweet mysteries of antiquity

A long long time ago, in 2012, the remains of the Lord of Ireland and last King of England to die in battle, Richard III, was found in a car park.

Above link leads to info page. Contains images of human remains.


The Wikipedia page also says he happened to be right under a parking space where the tarmac had been painted R (for ‘Reserved’).

It’s a neat coincidence, and I like to imagine that in the spirit realm he trying to use the parking lot as a giant Ouija board* all that time to tell people where he was.

I found out about Richard III because I have been running around for another assignment, trying to come up with a Proposal. AKA: practice asking for money from hypothetical VIPs to invade sites to do archaeology. Number of words written: 0 out of ~2000.

A lecturer told me that in the 1960s and 1970s, some community clubs (think: similar to Rotary or Lions) would go to old cemeteries, and if the headstones were crumbling they would shove them to one side, and place a lawn over the graves so they could have spaces for lovely green parks.

Anything for lawn bowls, amirite?

Image credit: wikimedia commons

This is probably what I will write on when I am done typing frantically for the other 4000 word assignment on Glenthorne. Number of words written for that one: ~3800/4000.

To revisit, Glenthorne House was a 3 storey mansion built in the 19th Century, and burnt down mysteriously in 1932. Little about it was documented.

An interesting thing occurred yesterday as I was reviewing the historical records. I had a lightbulb moment 💡. The records only point to a vague possibility there was more than one fire, but I am entirely convinced that there were two events, about six years apart, that were critical to the destruction of the house. The evidence was always there, but simply jumbled.

It was quite exciting to have this realisation, and I hope to blog about in more detail once I’ve submitted the assignment. I wonder if they would accept a theory postulated by a student as mainstream.

I hope everyone is doing well! I am still reading WordPress posts in my feed, and will channel words towards commenting again when I have done more homework.

*You could pay me to survey graves but not any amount of money to use a Ouija board, as I find that stuff creepy AF.

Australia, journal, university

Ground Penetrating Radar

Here is a GPR, which stands for Ground Penetrating Radar:

This $300,000 baby can detect objects and graves, 3 metres in the earth below it, as it collects signatures from disturbances in the soil. It speaks to about 4 satellites in the sky and so its precision in locating artefacts on Earth is accurate down to the centimetre.

It also is (literally) a repurposed lawnmower.

My face really did look like that.

You drive it like a tractor in swathes through the field, and the technology maps that field, telling the archaeologist if there’s anything to investigate.

According to the scientist who recently acquired it on behalf of our university, there is only one GPR in the entire Southern Hemisphere.

Something really awesome that happened by pure chance is that my paired group was the first to to be stationed here, during the first rotation on the first day.

When our professor was done with briefing – “right, who wants to drive it?!” – the other girl in my group, who doesn’t drive a car, looked at me in alarm. I was already itching to clamber on, and so I did. I can now say I was literally the first student ever to operate the only GPR on this side of the planet*. Wooo!

This week I’ve been at my first archaeological field school, and will upload more about what we were researching over the next few posts. I just had to dedicate one post about what we did first on Day 1.

*I don’t need to impress anyone as this blog is essentially anonymous, but this is true, and I was chuffed.

Australia, forensics

Forensic Archaeology

Circa October last year I caught wind of the words “forensic archaeologist” for the first time.

Toy skeleton. Image credit:

Whew! It’s a unique and exciting combination of words because it’s as if the mystery, adventure and thriller genres from Hollywood all got smashed together into a job title.

Turns out, this job hardly exists anywhere in Australia. Boo! This is also to the lament of Dr. Soren Blau, the archaeologist who runs the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, Melbourne. Here’s a paper she wrote about it.

So we, Down Under, are not exactly swimming in opportunities, but it was fun to explore. I got really into finding old issues of AFAAN (Australian Forensic Anthropology and Archaeology Newsletter), which was published by them.

Below is a copy from 2019 which I found from the inter-webs, which also includes an interview with a gentleman who became a forensic archaeologist when the Australian Special Investigations Unit asked a pathologist to check on some long-dead people, and the pathologist hand-balled it – the result was Emeritus Professor Richard Wright discovered and exhumed from some mass graves in Ukraine c. 1990. You can read the story for yourself below. (Please be warned, there are images of human remains on the newsletter).

I also discovered that there is a podcast called the Forensic Anthropology Companion Podcast, where really smart people who look at the science of determining the cause of death discuss their research. Episodes come up as the first result if you look on Google.

At some universities, students can study archaeology and forensics concurrently.

Perhaps later on they can be employed at places like AFTER, which is short for the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, in Sydney. I’ve written about funny acronyms before and this one is just splendid.

Here’s a slightly older ABC news article about a discovery they made that apparently we move around a lot just after we die, eeek:

I suppose in a way, it’s a good thing that the job opportunities are about as ubiquitous as bird’s teeth, as the implications are that homicides are on the less frequent side. Still, I bet if such a TV series about such a person in this role was released, a good number of watchers would tune in. I probably would if I had the time (see below)

Other stuff going on:

• Work is bit of a wild ride on a untamed bucking mare in a hailstorm right now – multiple colleagues have caught COVID, multiple computers keep breaking, and I am basically here running damage control. (There’s a strange sort of thrill in managing crises, but wish this didn’t cut into me-time, which includes blogging time.)

• As mentioned in another post, I have been gearing for a science exam. This has involved lots of maths too. I’ve been using search engines to look up equations so much that an unusual page came up – Google literally paused and asked me if I was a bot:

This came up instead of the search results. Next-level nerd status unlocked?

Turns out Alphabet is on the alert for a Westworld-like uprising, who knew?

I hope all you lovely readers are well. How are things? Have you heard of forensic archaeologists before? Or been accused of being a robot? Anyone have recommendations for good crime-related shows?


Stones and features on KI

Eric H Cline’s very interesting book Three Stones Make A Wall gets its title from an axiom that is taught to archaeologists:

One stone is a stone.

Two stones is a feature.

Three stones is a wall.

Four stones is a building.

Five stones is a palace.

(Six stones is a palace built by aliens.)

Meaning, everything that’s been long buried can all just look like rubble, and the size of the pile of rubble you uncover can hint at just what it used to be.

The final line is added in as a joke, because people are always saying that aliens must have built the Pyramids, Stonehenge, etc, as there is absolutely no way in the world humans could make something so large, apparently.

As promised, here are more photos of stones and features from quaint Kangaroo Island.

There is a beach at Stokes Bay which you have basically have to go caving with your life to find (exaggeration).

A mysterious sign

When you emerge from out the other side there’s a secluded beach that was hidden behind a huge (natural) wall this whole time. That’s where I took a photo of the diagonal rocks.

If you walk around the town of Penneshaw you’ll see a good number of very cleverly made sculptures shaped from iron, by a guy named Phil Baines, who’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive.

There’s a whole little trail in this town dedicated to displaying sculptures made by artists.

On this trail you will find a bridge which was built over a small ravine, to replace another built by a hobbyist almost a century ago.

Around 1920 LE Clarke built a recreational bridge that spanned this ravine… from iron cables, packing case wood and local eucalyptus timber.

I was thinking that it’s interesting that these days it would seem that people can’t go around building random structures easily in case one breaks while someone is climbing it and it makes you liable and opens you up for for lawsuit.

Thanks for reading about KI! I’ve come back to work feeling slightly better about facing the grind again.

Semester 1 of the Graduate Cert in Archaeology starts in mid February.

How’s everyone?

Australia, journal

Kangaroo Island: Fire and Water

Vivonne Bay

Here we went exploring. This bay is the second place in a row I’ve learnt that was named after a very nice lady, Catherine de Vivonne.

(The other place and person was Adelaide, the Queen in the 1830s, who was kind and 27 years her husband’s junior. She influenced King William to cut out swearing and drinking, and was loved by all.)

Anyway, over at Vivonne we found some ruins!

Stairs from the beach to nowhere

These weren’t terribly old ruins – the charred bits indicated they were probably burnt in the 2019-2020 bushfires – that time when pretty much all of Australia was ablaze.

There were no signs saying NO CLIMBING, so we went up for science.

The view at the top.

The fires on Kangaroo Island that summer ravaged 48% of the whole place. This report also details the destruction of habitat for various species. That summer, you could see red skies and smoke from more than 150km away.

A lot of animals died, sadly. But there still is surviving wildlife. Like this jewel-like bug…

… and this endangered and rare bird, the hooded plover:

Seal Bay

At Seal Bay (which would probably have been better named Sea Lion Bay), there are often many sea lions on the beach. You can pay to watch as animals flaunt the life we runners of the rat race all dream of (although to be fair, they do spend 3 days at sea hunting, and 3 days recuperating).

Zzzz. The dream!

A little inland lies the skeleton of a young whale that was maybe trying to do the same thing as the sea lions, but never made it back to the water. Poor thing.

The young whale, which conservation park has fenced off for teaching purposes. RIP.

Dolphins at Penneshaw

Driving along the coast, the partner spotted some blobs in the water and wondered aloud if they were dolphins, at which I yelled “WHERE?” and jumped out the car.

So now I can say I’ve seen the rival species to our intelligence in the wild. Seriously, if you have ever seen pictures of a dolphin’s brain you would possibly be alarmed, and glad they don’t have feet and opposable thumbs, or the world might have been theirs while we were fluffing around in caves, discovering fire. Maybe.

Ever explored some old abandoned sites/tempered your SO’s language/beached yourself/seen interesting creatures?